My Commonplace Book: March 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)


Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)


Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)


Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)


The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)


Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)


As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)



Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)


“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)


Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)


“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)


Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)


Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman Upstairs As someone who loves the work of the Brontë sisters, I was both intrigued by and wary of a book described as “A witty modern love story which draws from the enduring classics of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights”. Modern novels inspired by classics can sometimes be very good, but they can also be very bad, so I was interested to see what this one would be like. I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it, but with one or two reservations.

Our narrator, a young American woman called Samantha Whipple, is (supposedly – this is fiction) the last living descendant of the Brontë family. The novel opens several years after the death of Samantha’s father, the eccentric author Tristan Whipple, from whom she is believed to have inherited a vast Brontë estate which includes previously unseen drawings and manuscripts. Samantha knows this is untrue; her inheritance consists of something known only as The Warnings of Experience – what exactly this may be, she has no idea.

Arriving at Oxford University to study English Literature, Samantha is told that there’s a shortage of accommodation and is given a room on the fifth floor of a windowless tower decorated with an eerie painting she calls The Governess. Things become eerier still when her father’s old copies of the Brontës’ novels start to mysteriously appear in her room – novels which she believed to have been destroyed in the fire that killed her father. It seems that Tristan Whipple, from beyond the grave, is sending Samantha on a literary treasure hunt – and with the reluctant help of her tutor, James Timothy Orville III, she begins to follow the clues.

There’s so much in The Madwoman Upstairs for a Brontë fan – or a fan of literature in general – to enjoy. Samantha and Orville, who have very different views about reading, have lots of fascinating discussions, asking questions to which there is no right or wrong answer, such as whether the intentions of the author or the reader’s own interpretation is more important. In particular, they talk about the Brontës and their novels, exploring the themes and symbolism and how the sisters drew on their own lives and experiences for inspiration. I liked the fact that Anne, who is usually given less attention than Charlotte and Emily, was the most prominent of the sisters in this book, and Catherine Lowell has some theories about her which I had never come across before. This was all very interesting and I liked this aspect of the book much more than the mystery element – or the romance, which was quite predictable.

My main problem with this book was the character of Samantha herself. Homeschooled by her father and with no friends her own age, she’s awkward, outspoken and lacking in important social skills. I didn’t dislike her; some of the things she says are quite funny, and I particularly liked her response when asked if there are any leading men in her life (“several, but they’re all fictional”). However, I couldn’t understand why someone who appeared to have no passion for literature and claimed not to like any authors had chosen to study English Literature and how she could possibly have been offered a place at one of the world’s top universities. I thought her conversation with Orville at their first tutorial session was unrealistic – I couldn’t imagine speaking to a tutor like that!

Of course, the whole portrayal of university life in this book is unrealistic. Apart from her one-to-one meetings with Orville, Samantha seems to receive no other form of tuition and doesn’t have any interaction at all with any of the other students. And would Oxford really house a new student alone in an ancient tower which is part of a weekly tour? [Edited to add: maybe some of this is more normal than I’d thought]. Luckily, I was able to overlook the more implausible parts of the plot and concentrate on enjoying the literary analysis and Brontë references. If you can do that too, I think you’ll find this an entertaining read with some fascinating insights into the lives and work of Anne, Emily and Charlotte.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.